Space is uniquely difficult for us to wrap our heads around. It’s bigger, by many orders of magnitude, than anything we ever experience firsthand, and involves processes that unfold over the course of billions of years. One thing that can help you visualize space is maps and graphics like these — images that capture the diversity, the strangeness, and, above all, the vastness of the universe around us.
1) Our home: the solar system
This is the solar system, our familiar cluster of one star, eight planets, an asteroid belt, and a whole lot of moons, comets, and tiny bits of debris. This beautiful map from National Geographic shows our entire history of exploring this cluster — our crewed landings on the moon, our probes on Venus, Mars, asteroids, and comets, our orbiters around the Sun, Saturn, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn, and our flybys of Uranus and Neptune. But with maps like this, there’s always one important caveat to keep in mind...
2) The solar system is mostly empty space
...maps of the solar system are almost never to scale. In reality, the solar system is a vast, empty area, populated by a single star and a few tiny, spaced-out planets with huge, huge gaps between them. If you somehow flew by it at the speed of light, you might well miss it entirely, and simply see a bright sun surrounded by nothingness. Josh Worth’s If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel is the best way to see how empty the solar system really is.
3) The moon is surprisingly far away from Earth
Compared with the overall vastness of space, the moon is very close to us: it’s just 238,900 or so miles away. But compared with our daily experience, absolutely everything in space is really, really far apart. In the gap between us and the moon, you could neatly slide in all seven of the other planets, with a bit of room to spare. That includes Saturn and Jupiter, which are about 9 and 11 times as wide as Earth, respectively.
4) The sun is absolutely ginormous
It might not be a big surprise to you that the sun is really, really big. But this image, part of a great series on the size of astronomical objects by John Brady, underscores that it’s vast on a scale that’s simply difficult for our puny human minds to understand. We think of the Earth as a big place: flying around the equator on a 747 at top speed would take about 42 hours. Flying around the sun at the same speed, by contrast, would take about six months.
5) The United States, at night
We’ve launched thousands of satellites to learn about a place most people don’t consider “space”: Earth. Images of Earth from space have provided data on carbon dioxide emissions, previously undiscovered seafloor mountains, and deforestation in the Amazon. This composite image, made up of photos taken by NASA and NOAA satellites, shows the remarkable impact of artificial lights across the US at night. Looking solely at these blobs and streaks of light pollution, you can figure out the location of cities, suburbs, and even interstate highways.
6) 556 asteroids have hit Earth’s atmosphere
Every so often, a small piece of space comes down from the sky and hits us. This map shows 556 small asteroids that have burned up in Earth’s atmosphere over the course of about two decades. Most of them disintegrated harmlessly, but one exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, breaking thousands of windows and causing injuries. The odds of a more destructive asteroid hitting us are low, but it does happen from time to time — and many experts say we’re not doing enough to track and prevent such incidents.
7) 300,000 pieces of space junk
After decades of using space for communication and defense, we’ve left it pretty polluted: there are now an estimated 300,000 pieces of space junk a centimeter or bigger in Earth’s orbit. Some are deactivated, decades-old satellites, but most are shards of metal — the result of rockets that exploded after use, or satellites that collided. Experts are worried that growing levels of space junk could make some orbits difficult or impossible to use, and space agencies are requiring satellite operators to be more careful with their equipment after it’s decommissioned.
8) The very first map of Mars
People have been curious about space for a very long time. Way back in 1659, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens drew these rough sketches of Mars, believed to be the very first maps of another planet. Using an early telescope of his own invention, he spotted surface features and a polar ice cap, and even used the maps to calculate Mars’ rotation speed with impressive accuracy. Around the same time, Huygens also discovered rings and moons around Saturn, a few decades after Galileo Galilei discovered the moons of Jupiter and sunspots.
9) The first photo ever taken from space
The space age is commonly thought to begin in 1957, when the USSR launched Sputnik. But you could argue that it really began during World War II, when Germany’s V-2 rocket became the first object sent by humans into space. Afterward, the US Army took over the rocket program, and in 1946, engineers at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico attached a 35 mm motion picture camera to one of them. The rocket itself was destroyed when it crashed back to Earth, but a roll of film was preserved inside a steel canister, showing grainy yet stunning views from as high as 65 miles up — just above the 62-mile boundary used to demarcate space.
10) How the Cold War fueled space exploration
The era of space exploration began in earnest in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik — a beach ball-size, 184-pound chunk of metal that could send radio signals back to Earth. It caught American leaders off guard, and over the next few decades, competition between the two rivals dramatically accelerated space exploration: at the peak of the space race, the US spent a full 4 percent of its federal budget on NASA. But after the US beat the USSR to the moon in 1969, political tensions between the two countries began to recede. The space race turned cooperative in 1975, with the docking of a NASA Apollo craft with a Soviet Soyuz capsule in orbit.
11) America’s first triumph in space
In February 1962, when NASA was still frantically trying to catch up to the USSR’s progress in human spaceflight, John Glenn became the first American to complete a full orbit of Earth — circling it three times while crammed into a Mercury capsule for nearly five hours. The flight was seen as a major step in closing the gap between the US and USSR, and Rand McNally issued this souvenir map afterward in celebration. It’s likely that NASA intentionally avoided passing over the USSR during the flight, to eliminate the risk of Glenn landing in Soviet-controlled territory — just as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit flight had avoided US airspace a year earlier.
12) The four phases of NASA’s human spaceflight history
Since its 1958 establishment, NASA has gone through four main phases in human spaceflight. First, there was Mercury: a mission to launch a human into Earth’s orbit and return him safely as soon as possible, with hopes of beating the USSR to the milestone. Then there was Gemini: a series of launches that put a pair of astronauts into orbit for several days at a time, in preparation for a lunar mission. It was followed by Apollo, which successfully put astronauts on the moon and effectively ended the space race. Finally, after a brief drought in human spaceflight came the Space Shuttle: a series of reusable spaceplanes that carried out 135 launches before being retired in 2011.
13) Most space launches have been military satellites
Space history is mostly told in terms of human flights or uncrewed exploration of distant planets. But most launches have been military satellites, sent up into orbit to take photos of Earth, allow for long-distance communication, or help vehicles navigate. The huge number of USSR military launches in the 1970s and ‘80s is due to the fact that Soviet satellites had shorter lifespans than American ones, and the boom in US commercial satellite launches in 1990 was largely a result of new laws directing NASA to pay private companies to launch payloads when possible.
14) Satellites have been launched into orbit from 15 countries — and 1 ocean drilling rig
Twenty-six different spaceports in 15 countries have successfully launched satellites into orbit. Most launches have been at four space centers in the US and Russia: Vandenburg Air Force Base, Kennedy Space Center, Baikonur Cosmodrome, and Plesetsk Cosmodrome. But dozens of satellites have also been launched from Japan, China, India, and French Guiana, the home of a spaceport used by the European Space Agency. Satellites have even been launched from Odyssey, a former oil drilling rig that was converted into a privately owned mobile launch platform in the Pacific, as well as from Russia’s Delta-class submarines and the Orbital Science Corporation’s Stargazer plane — vehicles that can launch satellite-bearing missiles on the go.
15) Citizens of 38 countries have been to space
Only three countries — the US, USSR/Russia, and China — have actually put people in space. But citizens of 38 countries have traveled there, thanks to American or Russian missions that carried international participants. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the USSR carried citizens of nine different communist client states into orbit on various Soyuz spacecraft flights, and in the 1980s and ‘90s, NASA began doing the same with Space Shuttle missions. In 2003, China achieved its first human spaceflight, and since 2001, Russia has carried seven (super-rich) private citizens to the space station as paying space tourists — including the first South African and Iranian in space.
16) The moon is smaller than you realize
Perhaps because it’s so close to us — and consequently so large in the night sky — our moon is perhaps the main exception to the rule that everything in space is bigger than you think. This comparison of the continental United States and the moon shows that it’s actually pretty small. If you added Hawaii, the US would wrap around more than 70 percent of the moon’s circumference.
17) The moon has mountains taller than Everest
Despite the moon’s relatively small size, it has some truly gigantic features — including mountains that are taller than Mount Everest and depressions that are almost as deep as the Mariana Trench. The main reason the moon is so bumpy is because it doesn’t have flowing water, which is constantly eroding virtually every surface feature on Earth. This means every crater left by an asteroid or other impact stays in place for an extremely long time — and even the footprints left by the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and ‘70s are still visible.
18) The Apollo 11 landing site was the size of a baseball diamond
The Apollo missions landed humans on the moon six times. But the truth is that we’ve still barely explored it. This map — showing the Apollo 11 landing site superimposed on a baseball diamond — shows just how little of the moon we’ve seen firsthand. The Apollo missions, in total, had humans on the moon’s surface for just under 13 days. Since the end of Apollo, budget cuts and changing political priorities have stopped NASA from launching crewed missions to the moon, or anywhere else beyond Earth’s orbit.
19) We’ve sent nine rovers to Mars
The first few uncrewed missions to Mars failed, with rudimentary rockets mostly exploding just after launch. But in 1964, NASA’s Mariner 4 flew past Mars, sending back grainy black-and-white images — the first photos humans had ever seen of an alien world. In the years since, NASA, the USSR, and other space agencies have successfully put nine probes in orbit and seven landers on the surface, sending back tons of data on the planet’s composition, atmosphere, and frozen water. Check out National Geographic’s interactive version of this map to learn more about each of the missions.
20) Mars’ Olympus Mons volcano is almost as big as France
Mars has gigantic volcanoes. To give you an idea, this map shows Olympus Mons — the tallest mountain on Mars and the second-tallest in the solar system — superimposed on a map of France. Olympus Mons is almost three times the height of Mount Everest. It and other Martian volcanoes are so big for a few reasons: lava likely erupts at a higher rate, Mars’ crust doesn’t move (so lava piles up at the same point over time), and there’s little or no flowing water to erode it over time.
21) Curiosity’s landing on Mars was unprecedented
The Curiosity rover has been crawling across Mars since August 2012, making all sorts of big discoveries about the planet’s ancient history and chemical composition. But perhaps Curiosity’s most remarkable achievement was simply landing on the planet. Because the rover is heavier than any previous probe — and because Mars’ atmosphere is too thin for parachutes alone to slow down the craft enough to land safely — NASA engineers had to devise a rocket-powered “Sky Crane” to unfold and lower Curiosity the last 60 feet or so to the surface.
22) If we terraformed Mars
People have long dreamed about terraforming Mars — that is, altering its atmosphere and climate so humans could live on it. We currently have no real way of doing this, but people have proposed all sorts of ideas — mostly involving importing a chemical such as hydrogen or ammonia that would theoretically trigger global warming and the buildup of an atmosphere. These renderings show what the intermediate stages of the project might look like, ultimately culminating in a relatively Earth-like planet that humans could colonize.
The rest of the solar system
23) Dozens of probes are flying through the solar system
Though no human has traveled beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972, the world’s space agencies are now operating dozens of robots exploring all reaches of the solar system. This map, by Olaf Frohn, shows them all. Some of the ones to pay attention to are Rosetta (which delivered Philae to a comet and is still orbiting it), Dawn (which is now visiting the dwarf planet Ceres for the first time), New Horizons (which will reach Pluto in July), and Voyager 1 (which was launched in 1977 and is now in interstellar space).
24) The solar system is more than just eight planets
We all grow up learning the eight (formerly nine) planets of the solar system, but there are actually way more objects out there than you’ve likely ever heard of. This outstanding graphic made by Emily Lakdawalla shows every round planet, moon, or asteroid in the solar system that’s less than 10,000 kilometers across — in other words, every round rock that’s smaller than Earth. Most of the biggest ones are moons, but most of the unnamed small ones at the bottom are trans-Neptunian objects: poorly understood rocks orbiting the sun at distances way beyond Neptune. We still don’t have good images of these — and there are likely more of them we haven’t even spotted yet.
25) What North America looks like compared with Jupiter
Jupiter is famous for being big. But this image, another one of John Brady’s great astronomical size comparisons, will overwhelm you with just how big. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot — a cyclone that was first spotted in 1655 — is shrinking, but it’s still many times wider than North America. Jupiter and the other gas giants are so big because their colder temperatures allowed them to hold onto lighter gases such as hydrogen and helium, which floated away from the hotter, rockier planets closer to the Sun.
26) What it’d look like if other planets replaced the moon
Another way to understand how big the gas giants are is to picture what they’d look like to us if they replaced the moon. Illustrator Ron Miller did this, using a photo of a full moon over Death Valley but replacing it with each planet in turn. In this location, Uranus and Neptune would be alarmingly big, but Saturn and Jupiter would be so huge that they’d blot out a large swath of the sky. Solar eclipses, Miller points out, would last hours. (Of course, the gravitational consequences of having Jupiter that close to us would also be devastating.)
27) Even a single comet is pretty darn big
This is the comet 67P/C-G — which the Philae probe landed on in November 2014 — superimposed on Los Angeles. In terms of space, the comet is absolutely tiny: just 3.5 miles wide. But once again, this image shows how most things in space are way bigger than you realize.
28) Jupiter’s moon Europa could have more water than Earth
Of all the objects in the solar system, scientists might be most excited about Jupiter’s moon Europa. That’s because it likely has a liquid water ocean underneath a layer of surface ice — and that ocean may have more water than all of Earth, as shown in this image. If there’s water, there may be life. NASA is in the early stages of planning an uncrewed mission to Europa in the 2020s.
29) All of US history has occurred within a single Pluto orbit
It’s not just the size of objects in space that boggles the mind — it’s often the vastness of the timescales on which events in space occur. Pluto takes 248 Earth years to orbit the sun. To put it another way, the entirety of US history has occurred during a single Plutonian orbit. When Pluto was last in its current location, we hadn’t invented aviation, let alone spaceflight. This map was released by NASA’s New Horizons team in anticipation of the probe becoming the first spacecraft to visit Pluto in July.
30) Pluto isn’t at the edge of the solar system
Many of us imagine cold, little Pluto to be at the outer edge of the solar system. But that’s far from the truth. Beyond Pluto (which is actually sometimes closer in than Neptune) lie the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud: distant, poorly understood regions of space that contain millions of comets and icy rocks. The Kuiper belt is a disc of asteroids and other objects a bit farther away than Neptune. But the Oort Cloud — which we only know about from the comets that occasionally drift in from it — is believed to extend a thousand times as far, about halfway to the next closest star to us.
Beyond the solar system
31) We are light years from any other star
Because we can see so many stars at night, it’s tempting to imagine that our solar system sits right next to other ones, like houses on a street. But the truth — as shown by this GIF made from the 100,000 Stars explorer — is that our solar system, like most others, is a lonely one, like a single house in an entire city. You have to zoom way, way out (several light years) to see just a handful of other stars. By analogy, if you put Earth at home plate and the sun on the pitcher’s mound, the next-closest star would be about 3,072 miles away.
32) Other stars are utterly gigantic
We’ve already looked at a number of incomprehensibly huge astronomical objects in these maps. But other stars (like Arcturus and Aldebaran, in pane 4) dwarf our sun in the exact same way that the sun dwarfs Earth. And even bigger stars (like Antares and Betelgeuse, in pane 5) dwarf those stars in the same way. Over and over, as we’ve looked out at the universe, we’ve found it exists on a scale that basically makes no sense to the human brain.
33) Why supernovas explode
Based on their various sizes, stars go through different life cycles. They all begin as enormous, hot clouds of gas called nebulae, which bud off to form stars — balls of gas that condense due to the force of their own gravity. They burn by fusing hydrogen atoms together into helium, releasing energy over time. Smaller, sun-size stars eventually expand into red giants, which have used up the hydrogen in their cores but continue to burn in their shells. Later, they throw off the shell as a nebula, with the core cooling into a white dwarf. By contrast, larger stars’ cores are so big that they eventually collapse, violently, as supernovae: brief, enormous explosions that likely fuse all the elements in the universe heavier than iron — including the ones in our bodies.
34) How a black hole works
After exploding as supernovae, stars usually collapse into neutron stars or black holes. Both are ultra-dense objects that exert an enormously strong gravitational force, bending the surrounding spacetime, as seen in the diagram. Black holes bend spacetime so powerfully, though, that matter, light, and other forms of electromagnetic radiation can’t escape them. The Milky Way — like most galaxies, scientists believe — has a giant black hole at its center.
35) We’ve found hundreds of distant planets
Each bright dot in this GIF is a planet orbiting a distant star. We’ve found more than 1,800 exoplanets over the past few decades, just by surveying our neighborhood of the Milky Way (the spiral seen at the end of the GIF, made with NASA’s Eyes on Exoplanets explorer). The bright cone of light is made up of planets found by the Kepler Space Telescope, which has only surveyed a small section of the sky. Scientists now believe that every star, on average, is orbited by a planet — so there are certainly thousands more planets to be found, some of which might be home to extraterrestrial life.
36) The Milky Way galaxy is incomprehensibly huge
Sure, stars are huge. But the Milky Way is, once again, mind-bogglingly bigger. This rendering, which shows the galaxy in its entirety, is a way of seeing that. The yellow circle likely encompasses every star you’ve ever seen in the sky without the aid of a telescope. It’s based on the fact that under ideal conditions, people in the Southern Hemisphere can see the especially bright star system Eta Carinae — but in most places, the yellow circle would actually be much smaller. In either case, it’s clear that the vast majority of our home galaxy — which contains at least 100 billion stars like ours — is simply beyond the realm of what our eyes can observe.
37) Laniakea, our home supercluster
For all its vastness, the Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe. Recently, scientists mapped the 100,000 or so galaxies near the Milky Way and found that it’s part of a broader supercluster called Laniakea. This supercluster is made up of several forks, with the Milky Way lying on one distant fringe of it. What’s more, it borders another supercluster (called Perseus-Pisces) that’s moving in the opposite direction, and both seem to fall in a broader web, made up of dense supercluster networks alternating with relatively empty voids.
38) There are untold billions of galaxies
If we look hard enough, we can actually see these distant galaxies ourselves. This image, taken by the Hubble space telescope, shows an ultra-zoomed-in view of a tiny slice of the sky, a fraction of the size of the moon. Looking this deeply into the sky revealed more than 10,000 galaxies, and because of the time it takes for their light to reach us, this photo shows some of these galaxies as they were more than 13 billion years ago — shortly after the formation of the universe.
39) It all started with the Big Bang
All the matter in this incomprehensibly vast, mysterious network of galaxies was all contained in a single point roughly 13.8 billion years ago. After the Big Bang, the universe began rapidly expanding and cooling. Matter condensed into subatomic particles, then atoms, and eventually stars and galaxies. All this might sound strange and improbable, but when physicists trace history backward, knowing what we know about the laws of nature, this is the inescapable conclusion — and it’s supported by data we gather about the universe. We have no idea what came before the Big Bang, but we believe that everything we see today started then.
40) Your place in the universe
Looking at maps about space can make it seem like an abstract subject that doesn’t have a lot to do with us. But the truth is that you’re in space right now. You’re in it all the time. We live on a rapidly spinning planet, perpetually orbiting a fiery sun and surrounded by the stars. For me, this GIF — made from a gorgeous time-lapse video by Shane Black, then rotated manually — drives home the point better than anything else. The sun doesn’t rise and set. The stars don’t move. The ground is spinning underneath your feet this very minute.
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Developer: Yuri Victor
Editor: Brad Plumer